An analysis of the concept of civil disobedience in the work of henry david thoreau

See Important Quotations Explained Summary Thoreau begins by matter-of-factly outlining his two-year project at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts on land owned by his spiritual mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, although Thoreau does not mention this detail. He describes the reactions of people to news of his project, noting their concern for his well-being out in the wilderness, their worry about his health in the winter, their shock that anyone would willingly forsake human companionship, and occasionally their envy. Thoreau moves quickly to the moral of his experiment: He tells us he is recounting the rudimentary existence he led there so that others might see the virtue of it.

An analysis of the concept of civil disobedience in the work of henry david thoreau

On Civil Disobedience is another common title. The word civil has several definitions. The one that is intended in this case is "relating to citizens and their interrelations with one another or with the state", and so civil disobedience means "disobedience to the state".

Sometimes people assume that civil in this case means "observing accepted social forms; polite" which would make civil disobedience something like polite, orderly disobedience. Although this is an acceptable dictionary definition of the word civil, it is not what is intended here.

This misinterpretation is one reason the essay is sometimes considered to be an argument for pacifism or for exclusively nonviolent resistance.

Henry David Thoreau (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The environment became especially tense after the Fugitive Slave Act of A lifelong abolitionistThoreau delivered an impassioned speech which would later become Civil Disobedience injust months after leaving Walden Pond.

The speech dealt with slavery, but at the same time excoriated American imperialismparticularly the Mexican—American War. Democracy is no cure for this, as majorities simply by virtue of being majorities do not also gain the virtues of wisdom and justice.

The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.

Because of this, it is "not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize". Such a fundamental immorality justifies any difficulty or expense to bring to an end. There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them.

He exhorts people not to just wait passively for an opportunity to vote for justice, because voting for justice is as ineffective as wishing for justice; what you need to do is to actually be just.

What criticisms of representative democracy does Thoreau raise in “Civil Disobedience”?

This is not to say that you have an obligation to devote your life to fighting for justice, but you do have an obligation not to commit injustice and not to give injustice your practical support.

Paying taxes is one way in which otherwise well-meaning people collaborate in injustice. People who proclaim that the war in Mexico is wrong and that it is wrong to enforce slavery contradict themselves if they fund both things by paying taxes.

Thoreau points out that the same people who applaud soldiers for refusing to fight an unjust war are not themselves willing to refuse to fund the government that started the war.

In a constitutional republic like the United States, people often think that the proper response to an unjust law is to try to use the political process to change the law, but to obey and respect the law until it is changed.

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But if the law is itself clearly unjust, and the lawmaking process is not designed to quickly obliterate such unjust laws, then Thoreau says the law deserves no respect and it should be broken.

In the case of the United States, the Constitution itself enshrines the institution of slavery, and therefore falls under this condemnation.

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Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.

A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose.

If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.

An analysis of the concept of civil disobedience in the work of henry david thoreau

This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.

He considered it an interesting experience and came out of it with a new perspective on his relationship to the government and its citizens.

Summary and Analysis

He was released the next day when "someone interfered, and paid that tax". As governments go, he felt, the U.

But he felt we could and should insist on better. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?

There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

I heartily accept the motto,—"That government is best which governs least;" and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—"That government is best which governs not at all;" and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.As this thesis statement for “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau suggests, the author defines the act of civil disobedience by explaining the thoughts and emotions that should guide it, and these include having a sense of rightness and moral conscience.

A summary of Economy in Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Learn exactly what happened in this chapter, scene, or section of Walden and what it means.

An analysis of the concept of civil disobedience in the work of henry david thoreau

Perfect for acing essays, tests, and quizzes, as well as for writing lesson plans. If you are a teacher searching for educational material, please visit PBS LearningMedia for a wide range of free digital resources spanning preschool through 12th grade. Civil Disobedience study guide contains a biography of Henry David Thoreau, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

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SparkNotes: Civil Disobedience: Context